Lions wary of Jenkins, revamped Giants
Allen Park — Successful NFL teams typically build their rosters through the draft and spend prudently in free agency to fill the remaining holes. The Detroit Lions’ upcoming opponent, the New York Giants, bucked that philosophy this offseason, breaking the bank to land multiple players and rebuild a defense in disarray on the fly.
Scoring wasn’t an issue for the Giants in 2015, but the team couldn’t stop their opponents from scoring a little more. With a defense that ranked last in the league, the team stumbled to a 6-10 record, punctuated by longtime coach Tom Coughlin’s resignation at season’s end.
The Giants spared no expense to fix their issues, outspending the rest of the league in free agency by a wide margin, with a focus on its defense. On the first day of free agency, the team signed three huge pieces.
■Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (five years, $62.5 million)
■Defensive end Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million)
■Defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison (five years, $46.25 million)
One of the more well-known risk-reward players when he was drafted by the Rams four years ago. Jenkins always has been a playmaker. He’s managed to take his game to even greater heights in his new setting. He’s intercepted three passes and already has a career-high 17 pass defenses. On plays where he’s targeted, he’s allowing a completion fewer than 40 percent of the time.
“I think he’s playing extremely well,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “The lack of taking the risks has kind of cut down on the big plays allowed. He’s just playing really true, great technique and has all the physical tools you want.”
The 350-pound Harrison has been an anchor in New York, both in the middle of the defense and as a leader, according to second-year safety Landon Collins.
“It always starts with our front line and Snacks gets us right,” Collins said. “He stays on top of us and he is just a role model and a team leader. Him being hard on himself makes us be hard on ourselves and he makes sure that we see that we need to do better in every circumstance.”
To round out the transformation, the team spent its first-round pick (10th overall) on Ohio State’s Eli Apple. After a slow start, the 6-foot-1 cornerback has played nearly every snap for the Giants the past four weeks. In those games he’s recorded 18 tackles, three pass breakups and his first interception.
“He was out there trying to learn the pro game and he was battling through a couple things physically,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. “But once he got healthy and got out there on a consistent basis and could practice on a consistent basis, the game came together for him.”
Combined, the upgrades have made the Giants one of the league’s more formidable units. The team is allowing 18.8 points per game, nearly a nine-point improvement.
Passing against the Giants has been particularly problematic. They’re one of four teams holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage under 60 while intercepting as many passes as touchdowns allowed.
That’s also allowed New York to be stellar on third downs. They’ve allowed just 35.5 percent to be converted against them, the fourth-best rate in the league.
That’s a tough draw when your quarterback is nursing an injured finger on his throwing hand, which Stafford admitted affected his accuracy and velocity last weekend. The Lions’ best bet will be keeping the Giants off-balance.
“Those guys are very aggressive, they’ll jump passes, they’ll study your tendencies, they’ll study what routes you like to run on certain scenarios,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “They’ve got a bunch of players back there who play aggressive football, who go to intercept the ball, to break up the ball. They’re going to have a good feel for what we do. We’re going to have to sometimes change that up, sometimes just go execute.”
Lions at Giants
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Records: Lions 9-4, Giants 9-4
Line: Giants by 4
Series: Lions lead 22-20-1 (Lions 35-14, Sept. 8, 2014)